Does the Bible Endorse Capital Punishment?

PMT 2013-030b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Capital punishment is a hotly debated topic today. What does the Bible teach about this topic?

The Old Testament

In Genesis 9:6 God establishes his covenant with Noah as he disembarks the Ark to repopulate the world. One of the principles he establishes in this covenant is that of capital punishment. Genesis 9:6 reads: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.” Thus we have here a justification for one man taking the life of another: because man is in the “image of God” he may therefore act for God on just occasion.

We must remember that God sent the Flood to destroy man because man had become so corrupted in sin: Genesis 6:5-7 reads: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. [6] And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. [7] And the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” Thus, God’s covenant in Genesis 9:6 seeks to punish such evil as murder by capital punishment.

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The Ten Commandments appear in Exodus 20. The Sixth Commandment commands us: “Thou shalt not kill.” But not all that many verses later Exodus 21:12 demands: “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” Notice that he “shall surely be put to death.” The same God who gave the Ten Commandments gave capital punishment legislation as the proper judicial response against anyone guilty of murder.

Regarding capital punishment obligations upon society, God’s law expressly forbids exercising mercy against a murderer. Deut. 19:13 “You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.”

The New Testament

Paul the Apostle in the New Testament teaches that it is one of the distinctive duties of the civil magistrate that he shall have the God-given right to wield the sword (Romans capitally punished Roman citizens by beheading). In fact, as he does so, he points out that the civil magistrate is in this act a “minister of God” who must do so. Romans 13:1-4: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. [2] Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. [3] For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; [4] for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”

Paul offered himself up for capital punishment, if his accusers could demonstrate just cause in his case. Had Paul deemed capital punishment evil, he would not have urged its consideration. Acts 25:1: “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

Remember that Jesus upheld the law of God. He was not ashamed or embarrassed by the Mosaic Law calling for capital punishment. Matthew 5:17-19: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. [18] “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. [19] “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Paul also upholds the law of God, even mentioning its usefulness for standing against evil doers (which effectively endorses capital punishment). Interestingly, he does so while declaring that the law is “good,” is a matter of “sound teaching,” and is according to the “gospel.” 1 Tim. 1:8-11 reads: “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, [9] realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers [10] and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, [11] according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.”

Clearly the Bible establishes capital punishment as a proper judicial response for murder.

“The Civil Magistrate in the Westminster Confession” (4 CDs)
by Ken Gentry

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One thought on “Does the Bible Endorse Capital Punishment?

  1. Aaron December 8, 2022 at 8:57 am

    First, in Noah’s flood, why did God feel sorry for making the animals and birds? What did they have to do with the wickedness of men?

    Second, human rights groups today probably consider beheading as inhumane. It seems from Scripture, either God does not consider beheading as inhuman or that it is not relevant. Sometimes I wonder if God would be ok with death penalty by handing men over to a wild beast, just as God did with one of His own prophets. How do we determine which methods of punishment are acceptable to God?

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